Schopenhauer in love

Schopenhauer famously argued that the fundamental reality of the universe is Will (with a capital W), and that our individual wills are just phenomena of this Will. He was a major influence on Nietzsche, and appeals to people who are fascinated by power, such as people who engage in S&M, cocaine addicts, and politicians.

Schopenhauer’s view is exactly inverted, though. The fundamental reality of the universe is Love, and its reflection is Praise.

It was this inversion of reality, in fact, which cost Schopenhauer his friendship with Goethe. Goethe was a regular visitor to Schopenhauer’s mother’s house, and the two became friends and collaborators when Schopenhauer became an adult. But when Schopenhauer stubbornly clung to his belief that Will is the noumenon, they parted ways. Goethe is reported to have written in Schopenhauer’s notebook, “If you want to enjoy your own worth, you have to give the world some as well”. Of course, if someone is blind to the nature of Love, it doesn’t do any good to rub it in his face, and appealing to utilitarian motives doesn’t help. But I’m convinced that Goethe was genuinely worried about his friend and was frustrated that he couldn’t give him sight.

To Schopenhauer, love was just a mechanism. In his essays on love, he cited Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” approvingly, claiming that Goethe has admirably used the suffering of love to produce knowledge. Of course, this “compliment” was passive-aggressive, since Goethe would be the last person in the world to endorse using love as a tool of the will, and Schopenhauer knew it.

Schopenhauer’s inversion of love presages Aliester Crowley’s famous maxim, “Love is the law, love under will”. Crowley was once mentored by Yeats, and they parted ways for essentially the same reason that Goethe and Schopenhauer parted ways. Like Nietzsche, Crowley was not exactly original.

4 thoughts on “Schopenhauer in love”

  1. One of my favourite stories about Schopenhauer is about the essay-contest. He wrote On the Basis of Morality and submitted it to a contest asking for essays on the sources of morality. His basic idea was that morality was grounded in compassion or sympathy, not so much conscious reason or rationality. He was the only one to submit an essay.

    The group holding the contest cancelled the contest after three years and wouldn’t award S with the prize. They claimed he didn’t understand the question.

    S didn’t let that stop him, however. He published it with another work on his own.

  2. This completely vindicates my love for Goethe. I’m interested in what is meant by ‘the fundamental reality of the universe is love, and its reflection is praise’. Perhaps you could shed some light on that?

  3. @Andrew – That’s a great story; I hadn’t heard it.

    @Matt – I’m basically following Camus in “Myth of Sisyphus”. Camus confronted nihilism (as propounded by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) and rejected it. Then he asked, what can fill it’s place? It’s been 20 years since I read it, but IIRC he proposed at least 4 possible things that could replace nihilism, and suggested that the choice between the alternatives is essentially arbitrary (i.e. can’t be decided through pure reason).

    Camus was an atheist, so his arbitrary purposes couldn’t rise to the level of a fundamental universal principle. However, if we are committed to some sort of teleological explanation for the universe (whether it be theism, a simulation on some alien teenager’s computer, etc.) then it’s reasonable to think of the universe having a fundamental universal principle. On that view, Schopenhauer’s “will” could simply be a mechanism which is being leveraged in order to manifest the higher-order principle.

    The leap from there to “Love” is not terribly airtight. For example, we could currently be in a simulation created by transdimensional aliens who care only about understanding, to map out the physics of one corner of the real universe and to discover mathematical truths. If that were the case, the fundamental principle of our universe would be something like “understanding” — the whole cycle of life and death and domination and willpower since the beginning of time would’ve been a mechanism to serve the purpose of “understanding”.

    My personal view is that our universe looks a lot like a universe that is optimized to eventually produce 300 sextillion souls who experience love. That happens to align with Christian theology, but I had come to roughly that conclusion when I was an atheist (and it was a factor in my rejecting buddhism and nihilistic atheism switching to humanism).

  4. Oh, and the comment about “it’s reflection is praise” is just meant to suggest that the noumenon needn’t be unipolar. Love is relational, with a lover and a beloved, and with praise being the response of the beloved. And one can simultaneously be both lover and beloved.

    According to Schopenhauer, each individual is a small-w will; sort of like the image of the big-W Will. Perhaps I should allow that there is a “master and servant” polarity implicit in Schopenhauer’s noumenon, but it’s impossible for me to think of it as anything but unipolar. It’s like a huge pyramid of will.

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